What to ponder when picking poultry

President Hoover, campaigning in the 1920’s, promised Americans “a chicken in every pot.” This wistful dream of 80 years ago is an abundant reality to most American families. Americans now consume an average of 67 pounds of poultry, including at least 50 pounds of chicken (the remainder mostly consisting of turkey), an increase of more than 100% since the 1970’s. We also eat an average of 259 eggs per year -- a number likely to increase as the American Heart Association has downgraded its formerly dire assessment of the impact of eggs on heart disease. While there may be health and environmental benefits in this growth, which largely represents a switch in diet from more resource-intensive and fat-rich red meats like beef and pork, modern methods of putting poultry products in every American pot are producing more than their fair share of health, environmental and social problems.

We explore here the very serious issues associated with large scale, confined poultry operations, the source for most of the chicken, turkey and eggs sold in the U.S. There are alternatives however and before you buy your next chicken or pick up a box of eggs, consider your options. Use the Checkout Counter to familiarize yourself with what's healthiest, safest and best for the environment, and Label Lookup to find out what the various labels that can appear on a product mean and whether you can trust them.


Illness from contaminated food is a serious public health problem in the U.S. While modern poultry and egg production practices may be lowering prices, they are also increasing the risks of illness from pathogen-tainted eggs and meat. Common symptoms of foodborne illness include diarrhea, abdominal cramping, fever, headache, vomiting, severe exhaustion, and bloody stools; sometimes infections produce more serious, lasting health problems or even death. An estimated 76-80 million cases of foodborne disease occur here annually, along with an estimated 5,020 fatalities. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service estimates that meat and poultry sources of illness account for an estimated $4.5 to $7.5 billion in costs in the U.S. Poultry products, especially chicken, contribute the most to this problem, as they are the source of the majority of foodborne illnesses and deaths associated with animal products. And although rates have declined from their dizzying heights in the 1990’s, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control still considers egg-transmitted Salmonellosis enteritidis to be an “important public health problem.”

Factory farms and industrial slaughterhouses offer distressingly ideal conditions for the development and spread of pathogens. Almost all meat chickens (known as “broilers”) are raised today in factory farms, where they live on the floor of large buildings with twenty to thirty thousand of their sisters. Each bird has only 1/2 to 1 square foot of space -- space that often is littered with months or even years of poultry waste, according to the Humane Society of the United States. At the slaughterhouse, inhumanly fast line speeds, disease-fostering practices and a faulty system of inspection

Safe handling

Even under the best of circumstances, meat is a tasty treat for bacteria, so follow all the suggestions found at Food Safety and Inspection Service’s “Basics for Handling Food Safely”

contribute to the spread of pathogens.Processed poultry, for example, sometimes is finished in a chill bath, whose water can contaminate an entire batch of birds. Every step of the process of producing industrial eggs and poultry meat can potentially spread infection -- indeed, Salmonella has even been detected in chicken feed, thus jump-starting the pathogen generation process.

2009 is proving to be a breakthrough year. Whereas the federal government historically has shown little willingness to butt heads with the powerful food lobby and provide adequate protection for consumers and proper controls for industry, attitudes are shifting. And for their part, having lost billions of dollars to recent outbreaks, the food industry is now looking to government intervention as the best way to turn around consumer confidence. As a consequence, in June 2009 the House Energy and Commerce Committee reached unusual bipartisan consensus on the most sweeping reform of the food-safety system in at least 50 years. At the center of the legislation is an effort to transform a slow and reactive government apparatus into a preventive food-safety system. The bill gives the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) broad new powers to regulate produce at the farm level and review corporate records on activities ranging from food processing to pathogen testing. Rather than once every 10 years, inspections would take place as often as once every six months for certain items. Foreign governments whose companies send high-risk products to the U.S., like seafood from China, would be required to certify that those exports comply with U.S. health standards.

The legislation is in sync with efforts of a White House panel, led by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, tol shift the focus of food regulation toward preventing outbreaks rather than reacting to them after they occur. The panel is calling on the agencies to make several changes. FDA as an example introduced a rule aimed at reducing salmonella infections from raw or undercooked eggs by 60%, eliminating 79,000 illnesses a year. The regulation, among other things, requires egg producers to test their facilities for salmonella and buy chicks only from farmers who monitor for the pathogen. And the U.S. Department of Agriculture is developing standards to reduce salmonella contamination in turkey and chicken by the end of the year and will step up testing of beef to reduce E. coli contamination this month. At the same time, the FDA is developing voluntary guidelines to reduce E. coli in melons, tomatoes and leafy greens.

Antibiotic Resistance

Most modern farm animals are dosed daily with antibiotics. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that 70% of all U.S. antibiotics are fed to healthy cows, pigs, and chickens as part of routine industrial meat and dairy production practices -- about 25 million pounds of antibiotics, almost eight times the amount given to humans to treat disease. These “subtherapeutic” doses fight no active infection, but instead hasten growth and, in the short term, keep infection at bay amidst the germ-friendly conditions of factory farms. When illnesses occur, as they do frequently given the crowded and stressful conditions in which the animals live, further antibiotics are used.

The explosion in factory chicken farms and the number of chickens raised in the U.S. has dramatically increased the sheer amount of agricultural antibiotics used. Driven primarily by increased use in poultry, overall use of antimicrobials for non-therapeutic purposes appears to have risen by about 50 percent since 1985. Non-therapeutic antibiotic use since

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the 1980s has increased by over 8 million pounds (from 2 million to 10.5 million pounds), a dramatic 307 percent increase on a per-bird basis. Your average American chicken consumes 4 different antibiotics daily. 

The problem for people: tetracycline, penicillin, erythromycin, and other antimicrobials that are important in human medicine are used extensively in today’s livestock production, and organisms that infect humans are adapting, becoming resistant to these precious, effective disease-fighting tools. The FDA is convinced that for foodborne pathogens such as Salmonella, Campylobacter and E. coli O157:H7, “...the most likely source of most antimicrobial resistance is use of antimicrobials in food producing animals.”

Poultry antibiotic use poses especially pressing antibiotic resistance problems for people. Consider Cipro, our chief weapon against anthrax, and one of a class of antibiotics known as fluoroquinolones. Until recently, poultry have been routinely dosed with several closely-related fluoroquinolone antibiotics, including enrofloxacin (marketed by Bayer as Baytril©) and sarafloxacin. The overuse of the fluoroquinolone in poultry contributed to some 18 percent of people seeking treatment for Campylobacter infections that were Cipro-resistant. Enrofloxacin was finally banned in 2005, the first veterinary drug to be withdrawn because of the threat of antibiotic-resistant bacteria emerging.

This is a scary and expensive problem: the Institute of Medicine at the National Academy of Sciences has estimated the annual cost of treating antibiotic-resistant infections in the U.S. at $30 billion. Medical professionals now believe that some Staphylococcus aureus strains have become resistant to antibiotic drugs because of livestock antibiotic use. More than one-third of all Staph strains are resistant to vancomycin, considered the antibiotic of last resort.  “If untreatable Staph should emerge, it would certainly close down hospitals,” says Fred Angulo, D.V.M., Ph.D., medical epidemiologist at CDC’s National Center for Infectious Diseases.

As part of the solution to this potentially dire problem, both the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization have called for ending agricultural use of antibiotics that are used in human medicine. The National Academy of Sciences has estimated that consumers would pay a mere $9.72 a year more for meat if subtherapeutic antibiotics were eliminated.

Dioxins and Chlorine

The fats in meat are concentrated conveyors of one of the most toxic man-made pollutants known: dioxins. In its 2000 final draft reassessment of the health effects of dioxins, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency concluded that dioxins are potent toxins with potential to produce an array of adverse health effects in humans. The EPA report estimated that the average American’s risk of contracting cancer from dioxin exposure may be as high as 1 in 1,000 -- 1,000 times higher than the government’s current “acceptable” standard of 1 in a million. Dioxins are also endocrine disruptors: substances that can interfere with the body’s natural hormone signals. Dioxin exposure, moreover, can damage the immune system, and may affect reproduction and childhood development.

Once released into the air and water, dioxins freely disperse. These persistent compounds drift around the world, and make their way into the food chain when they land on plants or accompany a living organism’s drink. When ingested by animals or humans, dioxins accumulate in fatty tissue. As a result, over 95% of typical human exposure comes through dietary intake of animal fats such as meat, dairy and eggs, the EPA says.

Some poultry chill baths use chlorine or chlorine dioxide in the chill bath water, in an attempt to reduce pathogen loads. It is unproven but likely that some chlorine is absorbed by poultry along with the chill bath water that is absorbed. Consuming chlorine with water has health risks: chlorine, reacting with organic chemicals left in the water by soil and decaying vegetation, forms a group of chemicals called disinfection by-products (DBPs) or trihalomethanes (THMs). DBPs/THMs may be associated with 10,000 or more rectal and bladder cancers each year in the U.S., and are linked to pancreatic cancer as well. They may also cause major birth defects.


To control infections and increase weight gain,chickens are fed compounds containing arsenic, listed as a known carcinogen in the U.S. Department of Health’s 9th Report on Carcinogens. Most is excreted and becomes part of chicken manure. This manure is piled into rows or used as fertilizers on fields. U.S. Geological Survey researchers have studied what happens to the arsenic produced by the Delmarva Peninsula chicken industry (on the eastern shore of Delaware, Maryland and Virginia) and found that these farms contribute between 20 and 50 metric tons of arsenic to the environment annually.


Poultry houses attract many types of pest: lice, rodents, roaches, etc. Birds receive frequent doses of insecticides to combat these unwanted vermin. While there are legal limits set for pesticide residues in the poultry products obtained from these facilities, testing is infrequent.

Water Pollution

The sheer volume of manure that factory farms generate transform it from a benign soil enhancer into a destructive water polluter. Agricultural runoff is the single largest source of water pollution in the nation's rivers and streams, according to the EPA. An estimated 195 million Americans fall ill each year from waterborne parasites, viruses or bacteria, including those stemming from human and animal waste, according to a study published in 2008 in the scientific journal Reviews of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology.

Global warming, believed to increase the frequency and severity of extreme weather events such as flooding, is only going to exacerbate the problem for communities along the coast as well as along rivers and streams. Hurricane Floyd, in 1999, resulted in massive amounts of chicken waste washed into the Chesapeake Bay from burst and flooded lagoons, threatening fish and wildlife habitat. Phosphorus concentrations in Pocomoke Sound (downstream from the Eastern Shore poultry region) have increased by more than 25 percent since 1985, according to EPA data, suffocating sea grasses that are vital habitat for fish and crabs. Sixty-three percent of the seagrass habitat in nearby Tangier Sound has disappeared since 1992, says the EPA; high nutrient loads from the poultry farm-lined Nanticoke River are the suspected culprits. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation fears for the health of fish and crab populations. Runoff of chicken and hog waste from factory farms in Maryland and North Carolina also is believed to have contributed to outbreaks of Pfiesteria piscicida, killing millions of fish.

Runoff from all but the largest farms is essentially unregulated by many of the federal laws intended to prevent pollution and protect drinking water sources. The Clean Water Act of 1972 largely regulates only chemicals or contaminants that move through pipes or ditches, which means it does not typically apply to waste that is sprayed on a field and seeps into groundwater. As a result, many of the agricultural pollutants that contaminate drinking water sources are often subject only to state or county regulations. And those laws have failed to protect some residents living nearby.

To address this problem, the federal Environmental Protection Agency has created special rules for the biggest farms, like those with at least 700 cows. But thousands of large animal feedlots that should be regulated by those rules are effectively ignored because farmers never file paperwork, E.P.A. officials say. And regulations passed during the administration of President George W. Bush allow many of those farms to self-certify that they will not pollute, and thereby largely escape regulation. Lisa Jackson, the current EPA Administrator has recently ordered an increase in enforcement of the CWA. But for real improvement to water quality, Congress is going to have to pass laws giving EPA broad powers to regulate farms.

Ecological Resources

It takes a good deal of water, grain, and fossil fuels to produce poultry meat industrially. In industrialized countries, a chicken consumes more than twice its weight in grain over its lifetime; its waste becomes pollution instead of a contributor to renewable soil fertility. It also takes hundreds of gallons of water and about one-fifth a gallon of gasoline to produce a pound of chicken; you can make the same amount of protein from tofu with 1/8 as much fossil fuel. The corn and soybeans fed to poultry are the most fossil-fuel intensive crops in the U.S.: Twenty-three million tons of chemical herbicides and fertilizers, all derived from fossil fuel, are used on crops in the U.S., 10 million tons just on corn.

Industrial agriculture also involves the shipment of poultry around the country for slaughtering and processing. In the U.S., the average bite of food travels approximately 1400 miles before it reaches your plate. As heavy foodstuffs that require refrigeration, poultry meats consume considerable fossil fuels as they travel from slaughterhouse to distributor to supermarket to your kitchen.

Poultry farmers and plant workers

The increasingly consolidated chicken industry in America has resulted in poultry farmers having few and grim options. Farmers working through contracts with one of a handful of huge national poultry companies produce over 90% of U.S. poultry. Critics find these contracts reminiscent of indentured servitude: the farmers never actually own the birds, which are dropped off when young and picked up when ready to be slaughtered. Farmers usually must use the company’s feed, and are charged at rates the company sets for inputs and services. They are paid, when the birds are picked up, according to a company-determined formula that is based on the number and weight of the birds deemed acceptable, minus incurred expenses. The companies sign only short-term contracts, and are free to choose other farmers once the brief contract expires. While it is increasingly difficult to learn the exact terms of contracts, contracts from the recent past have contained clauses requiring the farmer to surrender all rights to sue and that prohibit the farmer from joining with other growers into any association or union. Most contract poultry farmers earn poverty wages for their efforts; the chicken catchers they employ, unsurprisingly, earn poor wages and endure unhealthy air quality from ammonia, pesticides and particulates in the chicken houses.

Workers at poultry plants suffer one of the highest injury rates in the U.S. In spite of explosive productivity growth -- from 143 to 190 birds processed per hour over the last 15 years -- wages have fallen in the industry. Poultry companies have been indicted for defrauding their contract farmers and exploiting poultry plant workers.

Animal Welfare

It indeed takes a tough man to make an industrial chicken. Chickens and turkeys in factory farms are culled, bred, confined, and processed in order to maximize production -- often at the expense of their comfort and needs. Industrial turkeys have been bred to have such abnormally large breasts that they can neither fly nor mate naturally, requiring a brutal insemination process. Both turkeys and chickens have their beaks singed or clipped to prevent pecking in the crowded pen conditions in which they are reared. Turkeys jostle against their neighbors, each having less than three square feet a piece; chickens get less than a square foot.

Egg-laying hens have it the worst. They are packed into stacked cages - four or five per cage, without sufficient room to spread their wings or even, sometimes, to stand upright. As the quality of their muscles do not matter to anyone (they are sold for soup scrap at the end of their lives), they often do not receive any exercise. Most suffer from broken bones before the end of their lives. They are also starved in a process known as “forced molting,” in order to enhance their egg productivity, which is not only painful and traumatic but damages their immune systems, resulting in more antibiotic use and a higher risk of Salmonella-infected eggs. McDonald’s and Burger King have stated that they refuse to buy eggs from forced-molted birds, which may be reducing the incidence of this practice. Non-egg-laying male chicks are usually considered waste, and are disposed of in a variety of cruel ways -- including being tossed in the garbage.

The same poor air quality that plagues chicken workers also harms poultry. Pesticides toxic to birds are routinely used in poultry houses. Millions of birds have been known to die during particularly hot conditions or due to equipment failure. Carcasses have been found piled up or buried in shallow pits, causing a public health hazard. Slaughterhouse killing procedures result in some live birds being dumped into boiling vats.


Remember, though large scale, confined poultry operations remain the source for most of the chicken, turkey and eggs sold in the U.S., there are alternatives. Before you buy your next chicken or pick up a box of eggs, use the Checkout Counter to familiarize yourself with which are healthiest, safest and best for the environment, and Label Lookup to find out what the various labels that can appear on a product mean and whether you can trust them.


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